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Who Writes a Better Fundraising Letter, the Doctor or the Patient?

2013 February 25
by Raffle Tickets

You have a dramatic, interesting, compelling story to tell about someone who has been helped by your non-profit organization. You are sure that this story will stir your donors’ emotions and boost your response rates and revenue.

So how should you tell the story? You have two options.

You can either (A) tell it from your point of view, or (B) you can let the person who experienced your organization tell their story in their own words. I recommend you go with Option B whenever possible, although this style of letter has its disadvantages.

In a first-person letter, the person that the story is about writes and signs the letter. For example, if you are a hospital, and you have an amazing story to tell about a patient who was dead on arrival but is alive today because of the intervention of your hospital staff, this type of story would be told in the patient’s own words.

The letter might begin like this: “On a sunny afternoon last September, I arrived at the Metro Health Hospital dead. I had no pulse, no blood pressure, and I wasn’t breathing. Not good, you’ll agree. But here I am a year later, telling you my story, and all because of the amazing staff of the hospital, who saved my life.” The letter would continue with the patient telling his story, and conclude by asking the reader to make a donation.

Advantages:
1. A story told in the first-person is invariably more dramatic and interesting than when the same story is related second-hand by a staff member. The writer of Amazing Grace wrote: “I once was blind, but now I see,” not, “John Newton once was blind but now he sees.”

2. They make your claims more believable because they get the people you serve to make them for you. An ex-patient who suffered a heart-attack, but whose life was saved by hospital staff, can say that the cardiology department is among the best in the world, and be believed, but if his surgeon says the same thing in a letter, donors will think he is just bragging.

3. Letters written by people who have been helped by your organization prove in a personal way that you are making a difference in the world. That’s because stories of lives changed, told by the people whose lives were changed, are more persuasive than stories told about them.

Disadvantages:
1. Letters written in the first-person by the people your organization helps or the people you serve have no institutional authority. A letter written by your CEO obviously speaks on behalf of your organization. But a letter written by someone who has used your services speaks about their experience, and nothing more. Only a letter written by a staff member or board member can tell donors about your strategic direction, describe your programs, and show how past support from donors is making a difference at your organization today.

2. Letters written by your clients are also unable to talk to donors about confidential matters. They cannot thank your new donor for her first gift, cannot ask your lapsed donor to renew his support, and cannot ask your monthly donor to make a one-time gift to a special appeal, since doing so would breach your privacy policy. (The way around this shortcoming is to include a note, written by your CEO or executive director, that describes all of the things that the writer of the letter could not write about.

Fundraising letters written in the first-person by the people your non-profit helps are likely the strongest letters you will mail, but not all of your letters can be written this way. Your clients cannot tell your story as well as you can, and you can’t tell their stories as well as they can. At least half of your letters need to come from your organization, written by and signed by a person in senior leadership.

About the author
Alan Sharpe, CFRE, is a fundraising consultant, author, trainer and speaker. He serves as Senior Strategist at Harvey McKinnon Associates, the full-service fundraising agency specializing in direct mail and monthly giving for the nonprofit sector. Through his weekly newsletter, books, handbooks and workshops, Alan helps not-for-profit organizations worldwide to acquire more donors, raise more funds and build stronger relationships. Sign up for “Expert Fundraiser,” Alan’s free, weekly, email newsletter, at www.expertfundraiser.org. © 2011 Alan Sharpe.

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